On the Need to Plan for Reading Enjoyment

A question I receive often is what do you teach?  Meaning what reading skills do I get to explore with my 7th graders in our English block?  And how do I cover it all?  I get it, teaching English Language Arts in the forty-five-minute block is daunting.  We feel like we are behind on the second day of school.    (Incidentally, this is what prompted me to write Passionate Readers because I figured I could not be alone in trying to deal with the madness).  And yet, while I gladly share what we do as I try to help my students become better readers, there seems to be a missing part in this curriculum conversation; the need to plan for reading enjoyment.

Why does this matter?   Because our assumptions about what we can do to kids’ reading lives through our well-meaning intentions are wrong.  We have assumed for too long that kids will just like reading, no matter what we do to them in class.  No matter the task we assign them.  No matter how we teach and what we discuss.  And yet, the numbers don’t lie… As kids get older, reading for fun decreases and with it outside reading.  We all know where this goes, by the time kids leave our classrooms and become the adults we have hoped to shape, many of them; 26% to be exact, choose to not read a single book for the next twelve months.  And we know this, we see it in our classrooms every single year; those kids that come in and sigh, that pick up a random book, that look us in the eyes and tell us proudly that they will never like reading no matter what we do.  It seems, in our eagerness to create amazing readers, we have lost sight of the end game; people who actually want to read once they leave our schools.

The decisions we make today, as we plan for the year ahead, or for the next day’s lesson, matters more than we know.  Yes, kids need reading skills, of course, but we also must plan specifically for protecting the hope of reading.  For protecting the positive reading identities that are already present in our school communities, for investigating and hopefully changing the negative reading identities.

But this won’t happen just by happenstance. Joyful reading experiences don’t just happen magically even if we provide choice, time, and plenty of great books.  We must strive to make it fun.  To create meaningful opportunities to interact with others through the books we read.  To abandon the books that do not work for us, even the ones we rank a seven or an eight.  To read picture books aloud not just for teaching the skill but for creating a community, for laughing together.  For speaking books with one another.  For reading aloud.  For finding time to slow down so we can savor what we read, rather than just to get through it.

And don’t take my word for it, here is just some of the research of the benefits of focusing on reading enjoyment from The National Literacy Trust.

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We may lament the amount of time we have in our classrooms.  We may worry that we will never get “it” done.  That we are not enough or that what we are doing is not the right thing.  But we must not forget how much we do control in our limited time with students; how many decisions we do get to make.  One of those has to be what we are going to do to protect the love of reading.  How will we make reading fun again and then stand proudly behind our decisions?  So next time you plan a lesson or have a curriculum discussion, ask yourself this; will there be enjoyment in this?  Will the very students we are teaching find this fun?  And if not, why not?  What can you do to change?  Our classrooms were never meant to be the place where reading came to die, they were meant to be places filled with reading explorations.  What will we do to change the very experience we have with our students?

Our classrooms were never meant to be the place where reading came to die, they were meant to be places filled with reading explorations.  What will we do to change the very experience we have with our students?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Ideas For How to Do Better Book Clubs in Middle School

In 2015, I wrote a post discussing how I was doing book clubs with my 7th graders and how their ideas had shaped our process to be more powerful.  Two years later, I look at some of those ideas and see how my thinking has changed and also how much more ownership the student shave taken.  I, therefore, decided to update that post with what it looks like now.

I knew when I moved to 7th grade that book clubs would be one of the things that moved with me.  That shared reading experience where students would get to just read and discuss is something I have loved having in the classroom the past few years.  I knew it would be a  different experience in the middle school classroom, after all , heir maturity would push their thinking, what I had not accounted for was also how my whole approach to the purpose of it would need to change to cater to a more critical mindset.  So what do book clubs in the middle school classroom need to be successful?

Then:

An honest conversation.  I would not have gotten student buy in if I had not had an honest conversation with them beforehand.  They needed a chance to vent all of their frustrations with book clubs in order to see how this time around they might be different.  They needed to know that their thoughts and yes, feelings, were validated and considered.  While most would have invested themselves in the process simply because it was expected, I didn’t want that type of buy-in, I wanted a genuine desire to use this for good, to enjoy the 4 weeks or so it would last.

Now:  

This is still how we start our book club explorations.  This one-day conversation is all about figuring out what they love, what they don’t, and how to make sure that they understand the bigger idea behind book clubs; having great conversations about a fascinating text.  This is, therefore, the first thing that happens as we embark on that adventure, after this, the kids start to figure out who they would like to have a book club with.

Then:

Choice in books.  I know it is easier to have a few pre-selected books for students to choose from so we can help facilitate the conversations, but with more than 100 students to cater to I knew I needed choice and lots of it.  With the help of my amazing library team, bonus points from Scholastic, and the phenomenal Books4school, I was able to present the students with more than 50 different choices for titles.  This way no group needed to share books and all students should be able to find something to agree on.  I also told them that if they couldn’t find anything, to let me know, we would find the right book for them.

Now:

This still holds true – the students all get to select their books and I now have more than 70 titles for them to choose from.  There is no overlaying theme between all of the books, although most, if not all, have a theme of perseverance.  This year, I have also added in some nonfiction titles and am thinking of adding more.  One thing that has helped me is by reading all of the books that I have as choices.  That way I know whether they actually have great things to discuss or not.    I also have this many books because I think it is important that the students can bring their books out of class, that way they can stay on track with the pages they need to read without worrying about access to the book.  Finally, one teacher shared the idea of having kids read individual books and then grouping by theme.  I find this to be a fascinating idea and may play with this next year.

Then:

Choice in who they read with.  Working with adolescents have made it crystal clear to me just how vulnerable they feel in these developing years and how much they value when their input is used to determine groupings.  So students are grouped together using some of their data, but also who they would like to read with and why.

Now:

I am adding an interview component to the process, as some kids do not realize how different their reading preferences, abilities, or ideas are from some of their closest friends.  This year they will, therefore, fill out this inventory and then interview potential people for their book clubs.  They will then hand in their sheet to me and I will group them together as best as I can to their preferences, but also including kids who may otherwise be left out.  For the first time ever, inspired by the idea of Kelly, one of our amazing special ed teachers, a few kids will also be given the choice of whether they want to do a book club with a chapter book or picture books that have to do with perseverance.

Then:

Choice of rules.  While I may have an idea for how a book club should function, I needed student ownership over the reading, as well as how their discussions would unfold.  All groups decided their own rules and posted them on the wall.  It has been powerful to see them guide their conversations, and yes, also dole out consequences to members within their groups that have not read or are not participating.

Students self-made rules hang as a reminder on our wall

Now:

I no longer have students post their rules, instead they just share them with me and I do periodical check ins.

Then:

Choice in speed.  All of my groups read at different paces, so they determine how many pages a night they need to read as well as when they would like to have the book finished by within our 4-week time frame.  One group, in fact, has already finished a book.

Now:

We now reserve three weeks for book club time, I ask them to pace it out so they finish with two or so days left of those three weeks.  They create a reading calendar and it gets glued into their reader’s notebooks.

Then:

Choice in conversation.  Book clubs should not function around the teacher, in fact, I have noticed that when I do listen in to an otherwise lively conversation the students immediately get timid in most cases.  I have learned to listen from a distance and only offer up solid small ideas to push their conversation further when they really needed it.  Too often our mere presence will hijack a group and students don’t learn to trust their own opinions and analysis.  Removing yourself from the process means students have to figure it out.  For those groups that struggle we talk about in our private mini-lesson.

Now:

While I still have students run their conversations, I do give them ideas of what to discuss in their book clubs so that they have a starting point.  They are also given an individual project to work on with their book (figuring out the theme and other literary elements) and so I tell them that they can use each other to help with finding the signposts (from Notice and Note) and what they mean.  This year, I will also be listening in to their discussion once a week and take some notes on what and how they are discussing hoping to work with them on their discussion skills.

Then:

Choice in abandonment.  I do not want students stuck with a book they hate, so some groups chose to abandon their books within a week and made a better choice.  Rather than think of it as lost reading time, I cheered over the fact that my students know themselves as readers.  All of my students are now reading a book that they at the very least like and that is an accomplishment in my eyes.

Now:

This still stands, except they now have to abandon it within three days.  I will also let students switch groups within the first week if they hate the book or the group dynamics do not work.  They, then, have to make up for lost time in the reading of their pages.

Then:

Choice in length and meeting time.  Students are allotted time every other day to meet in their book clubs and have 28 minutes to discuss and read some more.  While I have told student to try to push their conversations, I have also urged them to keep them under 10 minutes unless they are having a great discussion.  Students vary the length of their book clubs depending on what their self-chosen topic of discussion is and figure out how their group works best in the process.

Now:

Students are still given time every day to either read or discuss, they need to discuss every third day for sure and they can decide how long they want their discussions to last.  I do a quick check-in with them after their discussion to see how they did and how productive it was.

Then:

Choice in final product.  While our true purpose of having book clubs is to have a shared reading experience, I am also asking the students to do a book talk of some sort when they finish.  There are two reasons behind this; to assess the standards we are covering in the quarter but also for them to develop their critical thinking skills.  If the book they read is not suited for future book clubs then I need to know why.  I don’t want students to have a lengthy project because that is not what book clubs are about.

Now:

We no longer do the book talk, it didn’t work, it was too loose and the kids didn’t buy into it.  We now have two separate projects – an individual one and a group one.  The individual one is for the students to hand in a literary analysis of their book discussing the theme and the development of one of the main characters.  This is a typed paper, less than a page, that they hand in a week after book clubs end.  The group project is the 12-word book summary, detailed here.  They get two days in class to work on it.

While my method for integrating book clubs may seem loose at best, I have found incredible buy-in from the students.  They have been excited to read their books, they have been excited to share their thoughts, and the accountability that they feel toward one another is something I would not be able to produce through force.  Middle schoolers need a framework to grow within, they need our purposes to be authentic as much as possible, and they need to have a voice in how things function within our classroom.  Book clubs offer us a way to have these moments in reading that abound with deep reading conversations that I may not be able to have as a whole group, they allow even the quietest student to have a voice.  They allow students to feel validated in their thoughts and they allow them to share their knowledge with each other.  What have you done to create successful book clubs?

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

The Reading Identity Challenge

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At the beginning of the year, I asked my students to tell me how they felt about reading.  I do this every year as it offers me a baseline, a glimpse into their reading truths.  I was not surprised at the results, 25% told me they loved it, 50% told me they didn’t mind it, and the final 25%?  They told me they hated it.  Perhaps slightly higher than normal, but nevertheless, teaching 7th graders, I was not worried.  After all, every year it seems this happens and every year, children change their minds.

This year, though, some have proven to be stubborn.  Those kids that hate reading, they still were fighting me every step of the way.  Abandoning books, which we do embrace, every single day.  Refusing to book shop even.  Flipping pages aimlessly day in and day out.  Not having any desire to change their hatred, content with being part of the statistics of kids that don’t read.

So I created the Student Reading Identity Challenge.  Not just for the kids who still hated reading, but for those that needed a spark, those that needed to stretch their reading legs a little.  For myself to challenge my own reading life, nervously glancing at Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as two books I had no desire to read but knew I should.

A reading challenge for us all, so we all could get better, whatever better meant to us.  The concept is simple; over the course of three weeks or so students would select one aspect of their personal reading life and challenge themselves to make it better or change it.  Much like a personal goal; there was no right challenge, instead, it was based on the individual’s needs, the hopes for the future.   There was no limit to what they could work on and they would be given around twenty minutes every day to read, rather than our usual ten.

We started with this five-page survey; yes, five pages.  I needed students in all their stages of reading relationship to uncover new truths about themselves.  It needed to go beyond whether they liked to read or not and into their actual reading habits.  Where are they reading, what are they reading, why are they not reading more?  Where are their book gaps?  Where do they get book recommendations from?  All those little things that play into who they are as a reader.  It took the kids almost two days to fill it out because I asked them to please slow down, please really think about it, and then show your goal to me.

The goals varied; I want to enjoy reading again, I want to try a new genre, I want to read every day.  Some couldn’t think of one until we looked through all of their answers and something jumped out at us.  Whatever the goal was there was a reason, a personal one, that this was the one thing they felt would help them become a better reader.  Some kids even chose a read aloud with another teacher so they could have a shared experience around a book, trying to help them actually like reading more.  For every goal there was a story; a story of reading blossomed or reading gone wrong.  For every goal there was either excitement or reprehension; how would this actually change anything?  Once all the goals were in place, I asked the kids to somehow keep track – how will you know you are working on your goal?  Some chose a calendar to write down minutes or rank their reading of the day, some chose a peer to speak about their reading.  This is the one component I am still working on, I did not want it to be a writing experience, one where the students would have to jot down their thoughts every day, but instead, an organic process for them that helped them have a great experience, not one more thing to do.

So we began; some kids book shopped the first few days, having to find a great book as part of their goal as well,  others dove right in.  I taught a mini-lesson every day and then the rest of the time was for them to read.  I pulled small groups, conferred with students, and otherwise watched.  Were they actually reading?  Was this actually working…

One child told me she was so confused in her fantasy book and this was exactly why she never read fantasy because “It doesn’t make any sense!” and yet because of the challenge she read on, declaring at the end of the book that she couldn’t wait for the sequel. Another told me she was stuck in the boring part and this was always when she abandoned a book, but now because of the challenge, she read on.  A child who has yet to read a single book this year, no matter my support, is on page 60 of Hatchet, telling me yesterday that he read 20 pages in one day.

Whatever their goal, I saw it gradually start to happen; kids finding a way to make reading better for themselves.  Kids realizing more deeply who they are as readers, where they are on their reading journey.  For some, it has proven to be a huge revelation, for others just a small one.  But for most, it has changed something in them as a reader.  For most, there is a deeper urge to make reading enjoyable, no matter what they are reading.

So yesterday, I taught my first two classes, followed my lesson plan to the tee.  But in my 5th hour, the students asked if they could please read for ten minutes today, knowing I had only allocated ten.  Of course, I said.  When the fifteen were up, they asked for five more minutes.  Of course, I said.  When the five were up they asked if they could please just read the rest of the class.  As twenty-five students stared at me, seemingly holding their breath, I said, “Of course.”  And then watched the thickest of silences fall over the room as they each retreated into their books.  Even the ones who tell me they hate reading.  Even the ones who used to flip pages.  I did the same for the rest of my classes, and it didn’t change; silence, except for the pages being turned, and one child telling me triumphantly that they had read fifteen pages today – more than they read all of last week.

The reading identity challenge is not the end all be all, but it is another step in helping students uncover another aspect of who they are as readers.  It is another tool to help them become empowered in their own reading journey.  It is another step to tell all of my students that reading matters and that they control so much of their relationship with reading.  That new genres await, that it is possible for reading to be fun, that they can make it through the boring parts, that they can go deeper in their text.  That reading should be a part of who they are and therefore also should be something they mold and shape as they develop further.

As for me?  It turns out that Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were amazing books.  That I have realized that perhaps I should be looking at other classic children’s book gaps to make sure I am able to recommend them to kids.  That even though I love reading, I still have things to work on.  Just like my students, just like we all do.

PS:  Here is the reflection sheet I had them fill out at the end.  The standard referenced is one that measures providing evidence for their thoughts.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

5 Tenets of Choice

I have long believed in putting the “person” back in personalized learning.  In creating engaging classroom experiences with our students as we try to help them discover how they learn best and what they still need to grow in.  However working in the public school system in a state that has mandates and tests to take, means that we sometimes cannot just do whatever we want as we explore 7th grade English.  Means that I am not always able to tell my students to create whatever they want and make it work within our standards.  Means that sometimes we all do the same lesson or produce a similar outcome.  Even if I work in a district that is focused on doing what is best for each child and puts immense trust in its teachers.  Even if at my core I believe that children need to feel like they have control in their learning experience so that they will invest themselves.  And I think this is the reality for many teachers that are trying to do their best in engaging all of their learners.  So how do we truly create experiences where students feel empowered and engaged and have choice, even when it is not free rein at all times?

One of the foundations in our classroom is the five tenets of choice.  These ideas by themselves are the foundation for many successful educational experiences, these ideas have been around for a long time, and these ideas, when coupled together, mean that my students always have choice in something, even if it is not apparent at a quick glance.  While the optimal experience would be for them to have all of these choices at any time, sometimes this is not possible within the system I work.  So, instead, I strive for at least two of these, but preferably more, at any given time.

This tiny excerpt from my forthcoming book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Engaging and Reaching Every Child, details the five tenets of choice, hopefully they will be of help to others as well.

1st Tenet

Choice in engagement, meaning how they access the learning; do they need small group instruction, one-on-one conferring, are they independent or want to work with a peer?  I have students do a pre-assessment of how they would like to work through a project and then plan my classes according to their needs.  To see a sample pre-assessment survey, please see the appendix.   

2nd Tenet

Choice in product, meaning what would they like to create to show their understanding and exploration of a concept.  Sometimes this means full control of the product depending on the standards we are working with, while other times it only means minimal choice such as the format of their written work.   

3rd Tenet

Choice in setting, meaning how and where would they like to learn.  As discussed previously, students need to be afforded opportunities to manipulate the learning community environment to suit their needs.  This is part of their learning journey and so students can choose where they sit, how they sit, whether they work in the learning community or in other designated areas, as well as how they use the environment they are working in.   

4th Tenet

Choice in timeline, meaning when they are ready to be assessed.  While this one is harder to do at times, I do try to provide flexible timelines for students, as well as stay in tuned with what else is happening in other classes.  This may mean that for a longer project I will tell students what the final day is for them to turn something in but that they can turn it in any time they are ready before then.   

5th Tenet

Choice in assessment, meaning how and what I assess as far as their mastery of concepts.  Inspired by Kelly Gallagher I will often ask students to turn in the piece that they think showcase their depth of understanding the best and then assess and confer with them regarding this one piece of work.  This allows students more flexibility and control over how they are assessed, as well as gives them the opportunity to reflect on what mastery really means.  This tenet also means that once students have shown mastery for a quarter, they do not have to prove it to me again but can instead move on to more challenging work.  This is a way for me to ensure that students are provided with learning that matches their needs better and also allows them for more self-directed learning.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

A Better Way to Write Fiction Stories

We have been immersed in fiction writing for the past three weeks.  I have been amazed at the focus of my students, at the need for creation,and also their creativity.  As always, the plans I started with now look nothing like the plans we had, and so I thought it only fair to share what writing fiction in 7th grade English has looked like for the past three weeks and what I have learned and remembered.

Create Something

I knew that I did not need them to create the same product, after all, my standards assessed involve organization, word choice, conventions, and plot.  Nowhere does it say that they must write a certain story, but instead I asked them to create something that would allow me to assess these things .  I have been enthralled with their creativity process; yes, many students gravitated toward a written story with a neat beginning, middle, end, but others stretched their legs writing Minecraft fan fiction, movie scripts, picture books and even choose your own adventures.  I have students co-creating stories from opposite perspectives, I have students writing free verse (it is harder than it looks).  I have tales from their own lives and ones they have invented with made up words of their own.  Because it has been their story, their way, they have wanted to work on it every day, excited to share it with others.

Few Lessons

I have spent most evenings leaving feedback to students, thank you Google Classroom for making my life easy.  I have spent most class periods meeting with students asking them to tell me what I should look at when I read their work and then helping them from where they are.  I have gathered information on lessons needed and tried to support each child on their own writing journey, with the help of the support teachers I sometimes have.  Always trying to move students one step further and helping them think about what they need next, rather than a broad lesson that could apply to all.  The few whole class lessons we have had have been brief and centered around reminders on paragraphing, dialogue, and consistent verb tenses.

Speak Up

I have asked the students to please speak to one another, to please share their stories, to find those they want to write with and use each other as I use my own writing friends.  I started with putting them into writing trio groups but since abandoned the idea, realizing that the stilted conversations they were having would never get them much further and instead asking them to find someone that will not only read their work, but also be honest in their criticism.  This is still a work in progress, but I have seen the improvements, I have seen the growth and know there is something there.

Best Draft

I have asked them for their best draft, not their final version, and I owe so much to Kelly Gallagher for this wording.  Gone is the anxiety over perfection.  Gone is the notion that they must reach an unachievable goal as they hurtle toward the end.  Instead they work diligently, trying to get it to the best of their abilities before they turn it over to me.  Before they turn it over for more feedback that will ultimately push their story even further.  They know the process is not done just because they hand it in today, because the project is called best draft, even though in reality, many of them have handed in amazing stories that need little more work.

Use the Space

I have asked them to please find out how they write best within the environment we have.  How they best can support their own writing process, how they can use the classroom in a way that helps them better focus and find their flow.  Kids have been in corners, moved tables, on bean bags and in the team area.  We have had music, gum, and conversation.  For some we have had headphones for quiet and spaces to concentrate.  Each child is now a step closer to knowing how they write best, even within the confinements of a typical English classroom.

Find the Experts

For the past three months we have reached out to those who have walked the path before us; the authors that inspire us to write better.  Using Skype we have asked amazing authors whose books delight us what their writing process is and how they edit.  Every class has had different conversations but they have all centered around the same thing; find your own way, there is no right way for all, just a right way for you.  Hearing it from the mouths of those whose books inspire us will always amplify the message we already teach; writing needs t be a part of you so find your way of writing.

So now what?  We rest a little.  We change our focus as our stories simmer in our minds and then in a about a week we return.  Once the dust has settled, we look at the feedback we have received and we try to make it better.  We speak of revision as if it is just one step but I know from my own writing experience that revising is ongoing, editing is hard, and that it sometimes means stepping away only to come back later.  I still have much to learn as a 7th grade English teacher, I still have much to figure out, but this process?  It made a difference in the last three weeks.  Who knows how they will grow as writers next?

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

How to Create Empowered Readers – A Beginning

The sniffles started almost immediately.  Small choking noises came soon.  Then full out wails, tears, and gasps.  Theadora, our oldest daughter, was a mess as we drove home from Chicago today.  What had caused this sudden crying?  The end of Harry Potter Book seven.  The end of our 9 month journey accompanied by the ever amazing Jim Dale and the audio books of Harry Potter.  I was wistful myself to tell you the truth.  As I tried to console our distraught daughter,  I couldn’t help but feel slightly pleased, after all, isn’t this exactly the type of relationship that we hope our children, our students, have with books?  One that makes you want to cry, or laugh, or scream in frustration?  One that allows you to feel so intimately attached to something not created by yourself?  To feel the gratitude of brilliant writing and a long journey along with an author’s imagination?  To feel the loss of characters and of story as a book series finishes?

Yet, how many of our students have never experienced this type of sadness?  How many of our students have not experienced what is means to complete a series that one has become so invested in that it feels like the loss of a family member once the last page has been read?  How many years has it been for some, if at all, since they truly loved a book?  While we cannot change the past, we do have control over the now, over what happens in our classrooms. Over what happens from the moment they enter to the moment they leave.  And with that power comes an immense responsibility to empower our students, to offer them a chance at an incredible relationship with reading once again or for the very first time.  While it may start with having them choose their own books, this is not the only place students need more control to be empowered and passionate readers.

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Book choice.  This fundamental right to choose what you read is one that is so often taken away from our students because we want to help them develop as readers.   Yet when a child is not a  allowed to choose the very text they are asked to engage with, we give them little room for an emotional attachment.  How many of us adults will willingly invest in something we have been told to read?  So while we can expose and recommend, we must create classrooms where student choice is the norm, not the exception.  Where we help students find that next great book in order for them to become independent book selectors so that they can leave our classrooms knowing that they do not need us.  Not in the same way as they did in the beginning.  Where wild book abandonment is the norm and not something you need permission for.  Where indifference rules when a book is given up because we know that a new book awaits.  If we truly want students to feel in control of their reading identities then giving them the choice over which book to read is the very least we must do.

Book truths.  If we do not know what we are up against, then we can never change their minds.  This has been a mantra of mine since I started asking my students all sorts of things about their education.  So every year, and throughout the year, we continuously discuss how we feel about reading (and writing).  I never dismiss their truths, nor try to correct them.  It is not my job to tell them how they should feel, but it is my job to hopefully create a better experience for them.  I cannot do that well if students do not trust me, trust the community, and trust themselves and also trust the fact that perhaps how they feel about reading right now, if it is negative in any way, is something that can be changed.  (Yes, growth mindset at work here).  So ask them how they really feel and then truly listen, because it is when we listen, we can actually do something about it.

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Student post-it’s cover our whiteboard, our very first discussion of why we like reading or not from Friday.

 

Book Tasks.  Just Friday I was asked how many book summaries we would do this year.  I must have looked perplexed, because another student quickly added, “You know, write a summary every time we finish a book?”  I assured them that while we would work on summarizing, it would not be on every book, nor even books mostly.  Instead we discussed what we want to do when we finish a book; discuss with others, pass it on, perhaps forget all about it.  We must give our students control over what they do with a book once it has been finished.  We must allow them to explore ways to communicate their emotions with a book and certainly still develop as thinkers.  I keep thinking how I want our students to have choices every few weeks as we advance our reading; review, conversations, written ponderings, perhaps a summary, perhaps a video.  The point is, I am not sure at this point what we shall do once we finish a book because it depends on what the students would like to do.  I do not ever want to implement a task that makes a child slow down their reading or stop it altogether just because the task attached to it is horrific in their eyes.  So when we plan our reading tasks make sure that the long-term effects are not unwanted.  Make sure that it actually plays into our bigger picture; students who actually like to read, and does not harm this.

Book Selection.  While choice is of utmost importance, so is the way books are selected.  Too often we schedule in book shopping time for when it is convenient to us, forgetting that all students need books at different times.  Selecting a book is a also something that must be taught, even in middle school, because many students still have a hard time finding a book.  We therefore discuss how to bookshop, which yes, includes, judging a book by its cover, and then we take the time it takes.  If we really want students to wander among great books then we must give them time for that wandering and we must embrace the social aspect that comes along with it.  After all it is this book loving community that should sustain student reading after they have left our classrooms.

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How many students would say the exact same thing?

Book Access.  While I cannot continue to purchase books at the rate I have been due to a change in our household, I know that one of the biggest reasons many of our students end up identifying as readers is because of the sheer volume of books they have access to both in our classroom library and in our school library.  Kids need books at their finger tips at all times.  Much like they must have time to book shop when they need it, they also need to be able to book shop right in our classrooms.  When a child is obviously lost, we or other classmates can jump in.  When a child is only pretending to bookshop we can offer guidance.  We cannot control how many books our students go home to, but we can make sure that whenever they are in our classrooms; the books are plentiful.

Book Time.  Providing students time to read in our classes is one of the biggest ways we can signal to students that reading really matters.  After all, it is what we give our time to that must be the most important.  So whether it is only 10 minutes, like I provide every day, our a longer amount of time; time for reading in class is essential.  Otherwise, how will we ever know that they are truly reading because anyone can forge a reading log.  The time for reading should be just that, not time for tasks or post-its.  Not time for partner discussions or writing.  Reading, in all its glorious quiet.  In all its glorious discovery.

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While the above areas may seem so commonsense, perhaps it is their commonsense-ness that makes us forget to implement them all.  It seems so obvious and yet… how many of us have told a child what to read (I have!).  How many of us have asked students to create task upon task after they finished a book (I have!).  How many of us have asked students to bookshop at a certain time and for a certain amount of time and wondered why they came up empty-handed (I have!).  The point is really that we have the choice to empower our students.  That we have the choice to show our students that their reading identity and developing it is a major part of our curriculum even if the standard does not cover it.  Even if the test does not measure it.  Because we know that at the end of the day we are not just teaching students that should be college and career ready, but instead are teaching human beings that should grow as human beings in our classrooms.  I may not be able to change every child’s mind when it comes to books and reading, but I will go in there every day trying, because my hope will always that they too will someday cry when they realize that a series has ended.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.